Japan: The Proactive Power from a Reluctant Power


Earlier Japan was considered a reluctant power but in the last decade or so, Japan seems to have adopted a proactive method and so, may call it a proactive power. There are several reasons as to why Japan can be considered a proactive power like changing dynamics in Foreign Policy, Military/Defence Perspective (Defence White Papers 2020 and 2021), economic aid and assistance, connectivity and maritime domain which focuses on freedom of navigation, overflight and working toward a rules-based international order, disaster management and COVID and medical efforts.

In order to understand how Japan has evolved as a proactive power, there is a need to look at the different phases for the same. The first phase is from 2006 to 2007 when Taro Aso was the foreign minister and they focused on ‘Value Oriented Diplomacy’ and the ‘Arc of Freedom and Prosperity’ and these new concepts were mentioned in the Diplomatic Blue Book of 2007. This phase focused upon the universal values like democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and the market economy with special emphasis on the diplomatic efforts. The Arc of Freedom was seen as mode of Chinese encirclement. Further during this phase, Japan also worked upon cooperating and partnering in building new strategic relations with Europe, Australia and India. In fact, in 2007, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the iconic speech the ‘Confluence of Two Seas’ where he highlighted the importance of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Phase two was from 2007 to 2008 and this was termed as the resonant diplomacy as it focused upon the active Japanese diplomacy towards Asia along with highlighting the US-Japan Security alliance and so, this phase was a pro-China diplomacy phase. Phase three was from 2009 to 2020 under Prime Minister Hatoyama and the focus was on China’s diplomatic approach with Japan in the broader concept of the East Asia Community. Phase four was the phase which witnessed a change in dynamics as on September 7, 2010, a Chinese trawler, Minjinyu 5179 operated in the disputed waters near the Senkaku islands and collided with the Japanese Coast Guard’s patrol boats and this collision led to a major diplomatic dispute between Japan and China and China became assertive.

This phase experienced a brand-new diplomatic strategy as Prime Minister Abe had re-joined office and at a website called Project Syndicate and spoke about Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond. He opined “ongoing disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea mean that Japan’s top foreign-policy priority must be to expand the country’s strategic horizons” and further emphasised the need to explore through envisaging “a strategy where by Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific”[i]. This was a clear China-pout diplomacy as Chinese aggression needed to be dealt with. During this time, the Abe administration embarked on a trip to 20 countries for 8 months and saw “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map”, in other words a bird’s-eye view of global affairs and this was categorised as the ‘Proactive Peace Diplomacy’. Phase five was in 2013, when Prime Minister Abe gave his speech in Jakarta, Indonesia on the ‘Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy’ and highlighted 1) freedom of thought, expression, and speech in this region where two oceans meet, 2) seas governed by laws and rules, not by might, 3) free, open, interconnected economies as part of Japan’s diplomacy, 4) connection for fruitful intercultural ties among the peoples of Japan and this region and 5) promoting exchange among the younger generations for future interactions.

Phase six was in 2016 which catered to the economic and infrastructural Diplomacy and this was depicted in the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), Kenya. Here Prime Minister Abe in his speech opined “For a period of three years from 2016 to 2018, Japan will invest for the future of Africa through implementing measures centering on developing quality infrastructure, building resilient health systems and laying the foundations for peace and stability, amounting to approx. USD 30 billion under public-private partnership. These measures align with the priority areas in the Nairobi Declaration and include human resource development to 10 million people (“Empowerment”) by making use of the strength of Japan (“Quality”)”.The highlight of this speech was of PM Abe mentioned about Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Phase seven was when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy speech in the 196th
Session of Diet on 22nd January 2018 highlighted the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and opined “Japan will work together with countries with which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We will work hand-in-hand with the United States, as well as Europe, ASEAN members, Australia, India, and other countries to ensure the peace and prosperity of this region stretching from Asia and the Pacific Rim to the Indian Ocean”. He further opined that “A vast expanse of sea stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Since ancient times the people of this region have enjoyed affluence and prosperity from this large and free body of water. Freedom of navigation and the rule of law form their bedrock. We must ensure that these waters are a public good that brings peace and prosperity to all people without discrimination into the future. To this end we will promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”.

The present phase covers from 2019 to 2021 and discusses the Engagements of Japan. The Defence White Japan 2020 focused heavily on China as a major threat and Defence White Paper 2021 focused on Taiwan issue backed by the US. Japan has been involved in several combined exercises like MALABAR and giving military aid and assistance to others with other countries. Further, Japan has been investing in port infrastructure and overseas islands like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Science and Technology is taken up in a big way especially Cyber Security as Japan faces multiple cyber-attacks from China and Russia.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of things (IoT) are extensively worked upon in Japan and with other countries. Military cryptographic and equipment is being worked on. Robotics is also taking up more importance and multiple displays of Robotics can be seen in Tokyo Stores in Shibuya and Giza. Japan has also been interested in cyber space, outer space and electromagnetic fields and is working with India on it (MoU was signed recently). Disaster management with the help of Self-defence forces and coast guards for tsunami and earthquake alerts are also on a high. Greater engagement with QUAD Foreign Ministers Meeting and ASEAN, recent talks with Russia on the Kuril Islands to at least start engagement and aim to counter China. Medical Diplomacy in the COVID times where Japan sent supplies to many countries like India. Japan was successful in hosting the Olympic Games.

There are certain recommendations for Japan’s future Proactive position: Global, Regional and Domestic

Defence Policy and Defence Budget needs to be reassessed. Medical Diplomacy must get greater importance. Vaccine-oriented policy needs to be created. Abductees Issue needs to solved. Japan’s China policy needs to be dealt with more pragmatism. India-Japan Relations must work in the direction of greater military partnership and focus on oceanic policies.  India and Japan must focus more towards Africa and Latin America. Japan’s Defence relations must be further strengthened with ASEAN nations and India must also play a greater role. Japan must look at ways to reduce dependence on the United States of America. Japan’s South China Sea policy must be further developed.  Indo-Pacific Strategy must be further strengthened. Quad must be formalised more. After COVID-19 is over, Japan needs to find a way at balancing fixed spending and tax revenues in order to deal with the Japan’s Economic recovery. Economic growth, debt and employment regeneration must be looked at. Social Security System Oriented to All Generations, health care reform, issue of a declining birth-rate and aging population needs to be reviewed especially in the present times. Japan has just started digitalization and so, it will need to speed up the process. Growth related focus must be directed especially exports and cost of production must be kept in mind. Disaster Management policies must be further strengthened as disasters are getting fiercer.

Gitanjali Sinha Roy
Gitanjali Sinha Roy
Gitanjali Sinha Roy is a research associate at the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies (CesCube) and also fellow at the Japan desk at Cescube.


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